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Massachusetts homes contain more lead than rest of U.S.


Aug. 6, 2012
SPRINGFIELD — Did you know that Massachusetts has the highest percentage of homes with lead than anywhere else in the country — nearly 50 percent — because of the high number of older homes, many in poor shape with peeling paint?

Because of the high risk of lead poisoning in Massachusetts — locally the highest numbers can be seen in Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, West Springfield and Chicopee — the state has the strictest screening rate and a lead law, which protects every child's right to live in a lead-free home. The law requires the removal or covering of lead paint hazards — loose lead paint and lead paint on windows and other surfaces accessible to kids — in homes built before 1978 where any child under six lives. Owners are responsible with complying with the law, including owners of rental property, as well as owners living in their own single family home.

"We need to protect our children from the devastating health effects of lead exposure. While lead is also toxic to adults, those at greatest risk are unborn babies and young children. Their smaller, growing bodies make them more susceptible to absorbing lead through their gastrointestinal tract, and their developing brains are also highly vulnerable," Dr. Hilary Branch, who sees young patients for lead poisoning at Baystate Children's Hospital's Pediatric Environmental Health Clinic, said.

The effects of lead poisoning are often permanent and irreversible, resulting in damage to the nervous system and kidneys, learning and behavioral problems, slow mental development including speech and language problems, and even seizures and death in extreme cases of high lead levels.

The Massachusetts Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Act requires blood tests for all children up to the age of 3, or until age 4 for those in high risk communities and up to age 6 for a child entering kindergarten who has never been screened. For those children at high risk, living in housing built before 1978 with peeling or chipping paint or where renovations are taking place, or who have a sibling with an elevated blood lead level, they should be checked every six months.

While we have seen the removal of lead by law from paint (banned in 1978), water pipes, gasoline and other sources posing risk to children and adults alike, hundreds of young children continue to be poisoned by lead each year in Massachusetts, as well as across the country, from lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in substandard housing. However, there are additional risks to lead exposure such as imported toys and folk remedies, as well as other items such as clay pots, and some consumer products such as candies, make-up and jewelry.

"Lead poisoning is not easy to detect and kids don't often exhibit any of the subtle signs or symptoms of lead poisoning, making screening of paramount importance," Branch said.

In May, to further protect children, the Centers for Disease Control adopted recommendations made by their advisory panel of experts, which lowers the threshold for lead poisoning in children younger than 6 years of age. Until now, children undergoing a blood test to detect lead poisoning were considered to have a blood lead level of "concern" if the test result was 10 or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood. The new standard — implemented as a result of a growing number of scientific studies identifying that even low blood lead levels can have lifelong health consequences for children — means the level of concern will now be defined as five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

The new classification — allowing providers to take action much sooner to reduce a child's exposure to lead — comes as a welcome change among the medical community, whose goal is to prevent elevated blood lead levels from reaching the point where treatment is needed. Chelation therapy — which involves taking a medication that binds with the lead and excretes it from the body — is used for patients whose test results are greater than or equal to 45 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood.

"Because therapy comes at a risk, our first step is to work with parents to identify the source of lead exposure and permanently remove it from the home. Chelation is also used when separation from environmental factors does not result in lowering blood levels to an acceptable range," Branch said.

Physicians worry less about children and lead exposure after the age of 6, as well as exposure for adults, since they have less hand to mouth contact from crawling around on the floor and getting lead dust on their hands or putting toys with lead dust on them into their mouths.

Also, while statistics show that most children exposed to lead come from families who are poor, lead exposure is not limited to those in the low-income category. Many young urban professionals who live in upper middle class or upper class neighborhoods today, who prefer to purchase and renovate older homes with "more character," can increase their family's risk of lead poisoning when scraping or sandblasting. For that reason, renovation activities should be performed by a certified EPA-approved professional trained to follow lead-safe work practices.

Before you purchase an older home, get it tested by asking for a lead inspection. Those who rent should ask their landlord to test their home for lead. If he or she refuses, call the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP), under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who can send a state inspector to your home for free. The CLPPP also suggests the following tips to protect your child until the lead is removed from your home:

Wet wipe often, at least once a week, around windows, play areas and floors to reduce lead dust. Do not use a vacuum or broom to remove lead paint or dust, which can spread the hazardous particles into the air.

Wash your child's hands often and always before eating and sleeping. Clean toys with soap and water.

If a family member works with lead, they should change their clothes before coming home, then take a shower before playing with children. Work clothes should be washed separately from the rest of the laundry. Also, shoes should be removed before entering the home to avoid tracking in lead from the soil, and a doormat should be used to wipe your feet.

For more information concerning de-leading and what work may be done by an owner or agent, as well as how to become trained in the removal or covering of lead hazards, call the Massachusetts CLPPP at 800-532-9571.

Also, for more information on the Pediatric Environmental Clinic at Baystate Children's Hospital and its consulting, testing, and treatment services, call 794-0904. And, for more information on Baystate Children's Hospital, visit www.baystatehealth.org/bch.

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